Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wishing and Dreaming

by Samuel B. Prime

“What I used to able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.”

In our formative years, we define ourselves with temporary labels called our major and minor fields of study. We give ourselves over to the insular community common to college life; we fit in and find our place, but before we know it, it’s over. Each of us is thrust out into the white, rushing waters of adult responsibility, forced to fit a new mold – of growing, of aging, of moving on in stages all the while trying to keep our heads above the water. Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995) is the story of a group of inseparable friends (Grover, Max, Otis, and Skippy) who would rather drown in the throes of their post-graduation stasis and indecision than move on to real life. In the endlessly quotable, equally hilarious and tragic hour-and-a-half that follows, Baumbach illustrates a post-graduate worst-case-scenario filled with failed plans, delayed impulsiveness, and a brand of nostalgia which for the viewer becomes the film’s most endearing, relatable quality.

Kicking and Screaming begins on the evening of college graduation, the type of evening where Murphy’s Law rules the night, lurking around every corner and at every bend – especially for the film’s protagonist, Grover (Josh Hamilton), it is an evening of unpleasant surprises. Not five minutes into the film, Grover finds his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo), whom he met in his senior year, has not only quit drinking and smoking (the latter a habit he picked up from her), but that their mutual plans to move to New York to make their break as budding fiction writers have been dashed by her sudden change of heart to accept a writing fellowship in Prague, in the Czech Republic.

All that can go wrong will go wrong. And this first major inciting incident with Jane sets the dour tone of the narrative’s progression, a downward spiral in concentric circles of malaise, interspersed with the absent-minded wishing and dreaming of people with too much time on their hands and frankly too little to do with it. But it’s not entirely a down note of a film, despite the unnerving sense that its characters are going nowhere and taking forever to get there. Despite their lack of any connection to the real world, the days lived from moment to moment are remarkable on account of the mass of misdirected youthful energy put towards sleeping with Freshmen and devoutly watching detergent commercials to see if they get the stain out.

Each character deals differently with their inert lifestyle – Grover repeatedly ignores answering machine messages from Jane, while she desperately tries to correct her mistake by reconnecting across oceans; Max (Chris Eigeman) does crossword puzzles relentlessly and dates younger women; Otis (Carlos Jacott) chickens out on his grad school plans, deferring so he can move back in with his mom and work at the local video store; and Skippy (Jason Wiles) wades in the regrets of four years wasted in college and so re-enrolls after graduation in another failed attempt to make up for lost time.

Each character comes replete with his own set of quirks, further amplified by Baumbach’s memorable dialogue. Kicking and Screaming is, by all accounts, the most quotable film of the 20th Century. Baumbach succeeds in capturing the witticisms of everyday collegiate life in a concrete form, the phrases overheard and the quips made by the wayside, all of which form the narrative stasis of the film. While most are funny in ways that resonate with the viewer, their only purpose seems to be for the creation of an instant nostalgia both for the characters and for the audience. In the film’s most self-conscious moment, over beers with his buddies at the local hangout, The Penguin, Max admits, “I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now. I can't go to the bar because I've already looked back on it in my memory... and I didn't have a good time.”

It is this characteristic memory and nostalgia that renders Baumbach’s semi-cautionary tale of post-graduation planning gone awry so inexplicably endearing. We, like Max, begin to reminisce moments that have not even happened, we attempt to preserve Baumbach’s narrative in our minds by recalling its many quotes precisely because the portrait of these directionless young men is so open, so uncompromisingly revealed. But memory and nostalgia, while they serve an important emotional purpose, serve in this story to work against the present by keeping its characters stuck in the past.

Grover’s story being the primary, we see the world most often through his eyes. we experience the past and present through the framing device of Jane’s calls from Prague, at first ignored by Grover, and only acknowledged once it becomes too late. A message she leaves for him is revealed in incomplete stages, and only near the film’s end is it clear that the heart of her message is that she misses him.

Grover spends his time remembering Jane in flashbacks, and meanwhile his other friends are busy concerning themselves with the future instead of the past. Max applies for a job in his former school’s Philosophy department, Otis leaves for graduate school and Skippy gets so fed up with the stasis of the environment, he has a nervous breakdown and disappears. Grover had his chance to seize the moment, to speak up and admit how much he likewise misses Jane – but for Grover that moment has passed. Jane doesn’t call any longer, and he is left alone, wishing and dreaming for recently bygone days.

The film’s final moments, contrarily, are its most beautiful and heart wrenching. Appropriately, it comes both in the form of a memory and of a wish, wherein Grover lets his thoughts take him back to a memory of Jane, a construction of what is an impossible future for the both of them, but for Grover just as much a wish in the present as the past.

Grover: Ok, the way I see it, if we were an old couple, dated for years, graduated, away from all these scholastic complications, and I reached over and kissed you, you wouldn't say a word, you'd be delighted, probably, but if I was to do that now it'd be quite forward, and if I did it the first time we ever met you probably would hit me.
Jane: What do you mean?
Grover: I just wish we were an old couple so I could do that.

Kicking and Screaming is a testament to a timeless generation, to any who face the oncoming challenge of entering the “real world” following college graduation. It is the harrowed poetic illustration of the tendency of youth to resist authority and the becoming of something they cannot satisfactorily be proud of. Likewise, it is the making of important choices and the realization of the consequences that follow, whether positive or negative. In one’s formative years, there are the trivial and there are those people and things that define who you are and who you want to be in the future. Baumbach warns us not to let these people pass us by – it’s a long life, but the opportunities that it affords us are often as temporary, if not more so, as a four-year safety net called college.
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Monday, February 22, 2010

Blinded by the Light

by James Hansen

Selected as the Opening Night Film for MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight 2010 (running now through March 3), David Christensen’s The Mirror focuses on an interesting story, presents it pleasantly, yet misses a larger opportunity to really illuminate various aspects of a strange town that it puts on display. In the mountains of Northwest Italy, Christensen finds a small village called Viganella, which from November to February, due to the location of the surrounding peaks, gets no direct sunlight in town. The eccentric mayor, along with a local architect, decides to build a giant mirror and install it in a specific place on the mountains so it reflects sunlight into the village square.

The story of the mirror is cute enough, but The Mirror finds its life in the town’s residents. The mayor, Pierfranco Midali, is fascinating to watch as he plans and promotes the arrival of mirror. Basking in this small bit of glory which his town has never seen before (media come from all over – even Al Jazeera, assuring him that they aren’t terrorists), Pierfranco gives The Mirror an energetic presence. A local priest compares the mirror to God’s gift of light. Other locals don’t see what the big deal is, but are happy enough to help. Christensen’s camera captures the beauty of Viganella’s landscape and goes from home to home finding an equally magnificent group of people.

Unfortunately, when The Mirror is over, it seems as if the townspeople ultimately get a short shrift. Nearly all the interviews focus on the mirror and what they think it means for the town. Though this central concept is interesting enough, The Mirror grows tiresome after 85 minutes of local musicians and mirror-talk. (Also not helping at all is an embarrassing, tacked-on reflexive conclusion.) As most of the town’s residents see the mirror as a ploy or a social experiment, The Mirror bites into the visitor ideology that it simultaneously tries to break from. Seen as a small episode in a larger project, Viganella’s mirror could be a quirky trait from this unexplored part of the world. The Mirror, however, never wanders far enough from its basic premise to fully explore other elements of Viganella. In missing this opportunity, it feels like a long news piece on a weird little town. At times, you can feel The Mirror trying to break from this mode of address, but it always comes back to the mirror rather than to Viganella.

The Mirror was apparently shot over the course of a year, so it’s even more strange that there wouldn’t be footage investigating larger elements of the town, the intimate cross-cultural founders, or the actual lives of the people. With a great opportunity like this, Christensen’s simplicity backfires. It’s a fun vacation/adventure story, sure, but why not look a little deeper next time?

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cusp of Hilarity

by Brandon Colvin

Saturday Night Live, that bastion of incisive film criticism, featured a sketch this week in which Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness – a condensed remake of the former Bond director’s own 1985 BBC miniseries – was described as a combination of elements from other horrible Mel Gibson vehicles: Ransom (1996), Conspiracy Theory (1997), and Payback (1999). What’s shocking is how humorously accurate the observation is. Mel loses child. Mel gets obsessed with harebrained political intrigue. Mel goes on a violent rampage. That’s the film. As SNL noted, it’s basically a compilation of scenes from other half-assed Gibson thrillers sloppily pasted together with a nice glob of whiz-bang. The film, which verges on farce, amounts to a jumble of worn-out plot devices, tritely philosophical one-liners, and ridiculous anti-corporate paranoia manifested in a government-sponsored nuclear research company that surreptitiously makes bombs for – gasp! – Middle Eastern terrorists. Seriously? Gibson’s weathered, incessantly snarling mug suggests so. Like SNL, I beg to differ.

As mourning/frantic/self-loathing homicide detective Thomas Craven, Gibson’s strained, pseudo-Bostonian bark amounts to little more than a hyperbolic hamfest of grunts, growls, and grumblings, suggesting that the actor may have a future in some sort of post-post-modern comedy shtick (I’m looking at you, Lorne Michaels). His performance presents an unintentional parody of the revenge-driven macho-maniacal hardass, one that repeatedly pushes the film to the point of hysterics, even when tempered by the typically icy demeanor of Danny Huston as the villainous Jack Bennett, proprietor of nukes and wily murderer of whistle-blowing activists – including Craven’s daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic). Tossed into the mix, Ray Winstone, whose talent is sadly squandered, does an adequate job of portraying Captain Jedburgh, an enigmatic British agent with unstable loyalties and a terminal illness who sips Scotch and gets introspective while problematizing Craven’s quest, conveniently popping up and uttering cryptic clues regarding Emma’s death like a hard-boiled whack-a-mole.

The convoluted plot unfolds predictably, replete with all sorts of stammering minor characters informing Craven that he’s only seen the tip of the iceberg, that the whole thing goes deeper than he can imagine, that he’s messing with the wrong folks. Craven does not heed their warnings. He continues bursting through doors, tampering with evidence, and getting involved in numerous car accidents depicted with an overabundance of tacky smash cuts. What happened to the Martin Campbell of Casino Royale (2006)? How did he go from directing one of the most crisply and vigorously structured thrillers of the past decade to creating one of the laziest, most hackneyed examples of the action aesthetic in years? Beats me. I’ll chalk it up to Gibson’s soul-sucking aura of boring conventionality haunting the film, just as the maudlin memories of his character’s dead daughter plague the shoddy narrative.

Such pedestrian paranoid-thriller clich├ęs would be somewhat forgivable if not for Edge of Darkness’ complete fumbling of every possible instance of emotional intensity, including the aforementioned moments of sentimental drivel in which Craven recalls/imagines/hallucinates Emma. In addition to a few snippets of mysteriously non-diegetic home videos depicting a pint-sized Emma frolicking on a beach, the film features her disembodied voice muttering encouraging words to the despondent Craven – even having full conversations with him in which he all-too-obviously verbalizes his internal struggles – as well as younger versions of her inconsistently inserted into Craven’s surroundings, only to be revealed as his fleeting subjective projections in annoyingly routine reverse-shots. It’s hard to conceive of a film trying any harder to jerk a tear yet failing so miserably. Craven’s memories come off as awkward grasps at resonance that fall into eye-rolling banality, denying any investment in the character’s pain, a problem made infinitely worse by Gibson’s inability to appear sincere in between launching spittle and fists at sneering opponents.

But Edge of Darkness is not all bad; it has one great shot and one interesting character. The shot is the first of the film – a wide shot of a picturesque lake at night, moonlit and placid, doused in syrupy shadows. After a few atmospheric seconds of cricket chirps and gently sloshing water, a shape slowly emerges from the water, lumpy and amorphous. Suddenly, two more similar shapes float to the surface. A few glimpses of protruding hands and heads suggest the shapes are formerly submerged corpses, announcing themselves to the dim scenery. The film’s title appears in the center of the frame. Then the rest of the film starts and the provocative noir opening, full of understatement and patience, sinks into cornball slapdashery.

The subtle, evocative movie suggested by Edge of Darkness’ first frames would undoubtedly sideline Craven in favor of Winstone’s Capt. Jedburgh, the only character with psychological depth, a moral trajectory, or any memorable qualities. Jedburgh is conflicted, ambiguous, dangerous, and dying – all of which is glossed over, making him merely a useful cog in the film’s dues-ex-machinery. That such a promising character is relegated to serving Mel Gibson scenery to gnaw on is perhaps the worst of the film’s many failures. However, this is The Mel Gibson Show, as every bit of the film’s marketing suggests. Unfortunately, as a chunk of awkward chuckles and did-that-just-happen buffoonery Edge of Darkness is far inferior to the more cinematically-astute SNL; forget about a live studio audience, there’s not even a laugh track.

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